Saturday, December 31, 2005

Sunset near Ad Diwaniyah

A lot has happened since my last post. The elections two weeks ago were a positive step forward. We'll have to see how the horse trading over the new parliament goes. As I've said before this is slow and messy work. The elections were not perfect, yet huge numbers showed up. Other problems with the Interior ministry prisons have cropped up. This is the danger of the militias. Many militia members were given jobs in the ministry and abused their position. The hope is that the next interior minister will be from a party with no militia ties.

I continue to be baffled by the media coverage of Iraq and the US government's inability to break through in getting the message out that the juggernaut of progress is moving in Iraq. The media is a strategic battleground and the target is primarily the American public. The insurgents still believe that they can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with the right mix of made for TV bombings and killings. That is their strategic focus, not to hold any significant piece of territory or gain public support for their cause. They believe the fulcrum is American public opinion. If they can just keep up the metrics like number of attacks per day or number of "collaborators" killed, the Americans will pack up and go home. On a parallel track they seek to slow rebuilding and any deviation from their plan for Iraq. The average Iraqi may be unhappy with American soldiers on the street but they suffer as a direct result of insurgent violence and sabotage of the economy.

In the coming year more Iraqi security forces will come on line and take over more responsibility. The economy will continue to expand and the insurgency will become increasingly irrelevant and as a result weaker. We will have at least some troops in Iraq for many years to come.

My prayer for all Iraqis in the coming year is for peace, for prosperity and for God's blessing and mercy to be poured out on them. I think of my Iraqi friends, their children and families and pray that I might soon be able to return to them, sit in their houses and celebrate their new life, one build with their blood, their tears, herculean effort and faith in the future.

Happy New Year

Monday, October 10, 2005

I know that my Iraqi friends will be eagerly awaiting Saddam Hussein's trial due to start soon. Most of the guys I knew were local Shia whose families had suffered under Saddam. The city of Balad apparently had some troubles around the beginning of the Iran/Iraq war. Some men refused to go off to fight and Saddam's goons came around and rounded up several hundred men, who were never seen again. They sometimes asked me if I knew where Saddam was, If he was still in Iraq. I told them I was sure he was still in Iraq and it seemed to please them that there was a glimmer of hope that he would receive punishment for his crimes. I didn't tell them that our unit was in charge of his medical care. For my friends the death penalty seemed an appropriate punishment for Saddam, several said that they would do it themselves. I remember reading an Iraqi's reaction to seeing Saddam on TV in the courtroom last year. He wept uncontrollably, it was proof to him that his personal tormentor, who had loomed so large in his life had been stripped of all his power. His tears were the tears of unimaginable relief.

The trial will be watched closely by both sides. The prosecution will portray Saddam as an amoral criminal. The defense will portray Saddam as the greatly misunderstood leader, a scapegoat for an out of control superpower who aided Saddam and set him up for a fall. Expect the picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam's hand to figure prominently.

There is a danger to giving Saddam a stage. He is not stupid and can be pursuasive, insidiously so. There were several American personnel that had daily contact with Saddam, who incredibly started believing some of his BS. I know one said "he's a misunderstood guy, he's an intellectual, he writes poetry". To most people this would seem impossible, and I found it appalling. The problem is over time, in a vacuum, a person becomes immune to what you know this guy did and its only the present that matters and when he's speaking what you want to hear the fog descends. This is the danger, not to the Iraqis - they know him too intimately, but to those who want to pounce on the immorality of the US invasion. The subtle twisting that Saddam is capable of will be on full display. I guarantee that we will hear more about how Saddam was a threat to no one, he was a bastard but really the US is the problem. The Galways of the world will decry the injustice and proclaim the proceedings a show trial. They should rightly be ignored. This is too important for the average Iraqi. If this trial is somehow botched and Saddam gets anything less than life in prison, the corrosive effect on peoples trust of the justice system will be difficult to remedy.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

I've been following developments in Iraq closely. I'm confident that progess is happening. The current offensive along the Euphrates is a good sign. That so many Iraqi troops are involved in the fight is better. It means the center of insurgent operations is getting further and further from population centers and butting up against the Syrian border.

Much was made about only one Iraqi Army battalion being able to operate independently (category 1). What has been missed is that many other battalions are involved in counter terrorism operations all over the country. They may need logistic support or perhaps aircover from the coalition troops, but they are doing the job.

One incredible statistic I heard was the dramatic decrease in the number of mortar attacks in Ninewah province (Mosul area). Last year they were getting 300 a month. I remember have a somewhat sick contest between Mosul Airfield and us at LSA Anaconda to see who would have the most indirect fire attack in a month. Some months MAF would win, sometimes we would. This last month, in the entire province there were less than 10 mortar attacks. This is significant, but is only a part of the picture.

We noticed a dramatic drop in the quality of our enemy during our year. In the early spring of 2004 we were receiving aimed fire from mostly mortars and some large rockets. One Katusha Rocket was fired from 28km out and hit the base, just missing a housing area. We also had mortars consistently hitting around important command and control areas of the base. By the fall, the insurgents had apparently lost the professionals and guys who didn't know what they were doing were firing potshots at us and for a period couldn't even get a shot over the wire. Gradually the institutional knowledge faded leaving unskilled guys who were much more likely to get themselves killed that kill anyone. There were the odd lucky shots and we had a number of fatalities and injuries but nowhere near what it would have been if they knew what they were doing.

The IEDs were a different matter and they have increased in lethality. They are really the only thing that the insurgents have left. This is in direct response to being unable to launch any effective operation other than suicide attacks against civilians.

The insurgency will continue for a while as they continue their downward spiral of lack of effectiveness (except at getting media exposure), lack of public support and their own lack of vision.

The Fourth Rail has been giving excellent coverage on the current operations and interesting analysis.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Just a short entry. I'm finding it impossible to keep things up on this blog. I'll just write when I can.
I attended a Memorial Day ceremony in our town and talked with our Congressional representative Rob Simmons. He's been a great supporter of the troops and I thanked him for that.

I keep up with the goings on in Iraq through the Army publications off the MNC-I website.

The other day I found the 81st Brigade's newletter, the Desert Raven. These were our force protection guys at Anaconda and throughout the theater, they also trained some of the Iraqi National Guard Battalions. I came across the pictures of the Iraqi soldiers who were killed by a car bomber at one of our gates in January. The gate was 250 meters from where I lived and we felt the blast that morning. The soldiers were manning the first checkpoint when they were killed. Looking at their pictures made me feel a closer connection to these men, whom I never met yet they died protecting me.

Monday, April 25, 2005

This morning at church we sent off our Pastor's daughter, who will soon be going to Iraq with the Air Force.

Some of the Doctors that I deployed with in January of last year are now back in Iraq. The Docs go for 90 days, but some look like they may do that 90 days as a kind of annual thing. The ranks of some of the specialists like psychiatrists and a few surgical specialties are thin and they can expect a quick turnaround. In our Battalion we had Physicians and Dentists from something like 27 states and territories. Lots of state surgeons and a boatload of full bird colonels and one former general who took an administrative bust so he could stay in the Army a little longer (Generals have to retire at 60). He'll retire at General pay so don't feel too sorry for him.

Yesterday our family support group threw a party at a local casino. I couldn't make it because its a little nuts in my house now. Our new daughter was born on April 13th and I'm taking a few weeks off from work to help out. We need to reach a new equilibrium with 5 kids.

I've heard from a few people in Iraq. The general consensus is that attacks at their bases have decreased, with a spike in the last week. The civilian casualties are terrible and seem to be the focus of the remaining insurgents. Its really hard to get the true picture from what I read and watch on TV. I wish I had my SIPRNET terminal back and could get a less filtered view. The wrangling in the new Iraqi government is not productive and may be putting some wind back in the sails of the insurgency, demoralized by the elections. My impression is that Iraq moves forward still, the vast majority go about their lives, University students are taking exams, farmers are harvesting the spring crops, businessmen sell their wares, engineers rebuild infrastructure. There is hope for tomorrow.

Some blogs I've been reading this week are Major K, the battalion Intel Officer in an Army Infantry Unit, 365 Days and a Wakeup from a Captain in the same unit and the Blogs of two Marine Cobra pilots stationed near Ramadi. Some of the pilot's descriptions of accompanying CASEVAC flights brought back memories of the many times I saw the Marines flying casualties to our hospital in Balad, the CH-46s would come in 50 feet over our building and land at the pad while their Cobra escorts circled our base.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

This week the Abu Ghraib Prison was attacked twice by a large group of anachronisms...I mean insurgents. The attack was the sort of thing that has happened several times using car bombs, RPGs and small arms. Since our medics ran an aid station at the BCDF (Baghdad Central Detention Facility) we kept an eye on the intel from the neighborhood. We were warned on multiple occasions of just such an attack, trying to breach the perimeter with a VBIED and then driving another one in for more damage. A ground attack would follow as insurgents streamed into the compound to free the prisoners. It was worrisome when a detailed map of the facility showed up on a website sympathetic to the insurgency. Their plan looked good on paper, in practice these attacks never achieved their goals. They did, however, show how much they cared about the prisoners inside by mortaring the place all the time. In April 2004 a barrage killed over 20 prisoners and injured 100.

Because of the stupidity perpetrated there, Abu Ghraib has assumed even greater significance as a symbolic target after the elections because of the insurgency's limited ability to conduct attacks without killing large numbers of innocent people and pissing off the Iraqi public. Their PR guy is doing a terrible job and should be fired (up).

I remember back in the summer of 2004 when things were going on in Samarra an SF officer lamented how badly we were being beaten in the PR war and how the insurgency was expertly manipulating the international press into a strategic weapon. Now the International press has been defanged by the Iraqi elections and the insurgency is desperately searching for the magic bullet event that will inspire their people and fan the flames. They are now reaching the point of being delusional to think that their actions will inspire anyone other than themselves. The magic bullet does not exist. The Juggernaut of public opinion is moving swiftly and many of them are finding themselves crushed beneath its momentum, turned in or fought outrightly by citizens with a much different and more compelling view of the future. They have reached a critical point from which they will not recover. The insurgency is like a satellite in a decaying orbit. I can say that confidently now. There were some dark moments last year for me when things looked like they were spiraling out of control. I was always optimistic but there were some moments of doubt.

March was reported to have had the lowest number of attacks since February 2004 (the lowest). Attacks are down to 40-50 a day. Let me tell you a little secret. Attack numbers have limited utility (though it is good to have less). When we measured attacks, we liked to have the numbers broken down to a bit finer detail. Total attacks in a given day could include kids throwing rocks at a convoy, a guy taking one or two potshots with an AK-47, unaimed RPG, mortar and rocket fire and ineffective IEDs. Most of these type of attacks produced few, if any casualties. The more important metric was complex attacks and ambushes that indicated a certain level of sophistication, mass casualty car and suicide bombers, and aimed indirect fire. I don't think I would be going too far out on a limb to suggest that there has been a more precipitous decline in the latter types of attacks indicating that the insurgency has lost its best and brightest. This was what we were observing when I left in January.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The political wrangling hopefully will conclude soon with a coalition government. Despite some violence, it seems to me that the progress continues in Iraq. It also seems Iraqis are more optimistic than Americans about their future.

Several coalition partners have announced phased withdrawals bowing to political pressure at home, these include Italy, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. The Netherlands ended their time this past week and most will soon be gone.

It was interesting to watch the spins on the second anniversary of the invasion.

I particularly like the headlines "As Anti-War sentiments mounts, nations drop out of US coalition" and "The incredible crumbling coalition". Some people are still trying to make Iraq out to be an unqualified debacle, despite evidence to the contrary. There were protests around the world today because of the anniversary. The crowd in London was the biggest I heard of at 45000. They had hoped for over 200,000. In the US over 500 protests were planned. The papers commented that there was "less enthusiasm" for participating than in past anti-war rallies. Hey, that's what a reality check does!

I think the recent events in Palestine, Lebanon and the elections have given a few in the rabidly anti-war crowd some pause.

A case in point of progress is Sadr City, a huge mostly Shiite area in Baghdad. In September the 1st Cav was getting over 150 attacks a week. Moqtada's Militia was running rampant. The Cav did a few things that made a difference. First they hunted down and wore down the militia. They would make a lot of noise like an entire brigade was about to come through and the bad guys were on edge for weeks waiting for the big attack. When they did go in it was no contest. After that, there was a large weapons buy-back program. I watched the numbers every day and was amazed by the number and type of weapons, hundreds of mortar tubes, thousands of mortar rounds, 5000 plus anti-personnel mines plus everything else including a US made Dragon anti-tank weapon. I sat in Intel meetings where the buyback was poo-pooed as just a way for the insurgents to turn junk into cash as happened a few times before. In Sadr City the stuff had to be operational to get the big bucks. The commander believed that this would put some much needed cash in the hands of the families of Sadr City. A few weeks later a massive employment program hired over 15,000 people to rebuild roads, sewers and other parts of the infrastructure. The end result is now Sadr City is a completely different place. The weekly attacks are down to between 0 and 5. To put it a different way, the insurgency in Sadr City flatlined, while the citizens came back to life. It is still poor but positive signs of life are all around.

The pullouts really don't cause me any concern, they are reflections more of local politics than things getting too hot in Iraq. The chance of the security situation unraveling because of the pullout of several thousand coalition troops is slim to nil. The improved security is a testament both to coalition and Iraqi troops and security forces. I hope our troops will also be able to draw down a bit in the coming year. The absence of the Italian pizzeria in Tallil is more problematic. The Italians are in a relatively quiet part of the country that is predominately Shiite. Save a few roadside bombs once in a while, the place is stable. One of our doctors in their zone went outside the wire visiting villages and Bedouin camps with the Civil Affairs guys almost every day.

All the coalition troops have done an outstanding job in their respective areas. The leadership of many of the countries often sent troops despite the unpopularity of the enterprise. I always appreciated any coalition troops I came across as comrades in arms whether they were Polish, Ukrainian or Mongolian Infantry, Thai Medics, Japanese engineers, Australian surgeons or British Special Forces. Everyone who was there and those who continue to be have played a very significant role in rebuilding Iraq of which they should be proud.
The Iraqi military and security forces are shouldering larger roles and taking over jobs the coalition once had to perform.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

I've been looking through some very interesting old photographs at the site Iraqipages. In 1914 steamships could travel all the way up the Tigris from the Persian Gulf, a feat not possible today. Also, I love those round asphalt covered baskets used as boats. They called them Quffas and even transported water buffalo in them.

I have found some old itineraries for package tours around Iraq. They give an interesting glimpse of what hopefully will be possible in years to come. Apparently after 1993 this group offered three package tours of Iraq. The first visited the main historic and archeological sites, the other two were specifically geared to Christian and Muslim groups respectively.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

A major story this week was the bombing at a funeral in Mosul.

Its sad that the criminals continue to target so many innocent people. I wonder how much was paid to the bombers family. We observed that a large number of the attacks were funded by the moneymen. Apparently ideology was not a strong enough incentive anymore. Unfortunately the Italians reportedly paying 6 million dollars to free the female journalist doesn't help. Too bad they didn't pay 6 million Lira.

I just came across an abstract of a study that examines the effect of the US invasion on suicide bombings in Israel. The theory was that the removal of Saddam Hussein, who paid handsome rewards to the families of bombers, would decrease the number of attacks. This would indicate that the financial rewards tipped the balance for some people. The study found evidence that attacks were lower on average after the invasion and that perhaps 1100 casualties had been avoided. This assumes a steady state for all other variables, which can't be the case. The security fence has been given quite a bit of credit for the decrease. The paper does, however, provide food for thought about the role of financial incentives in terrorist activities.

For things like setting up IEDs and firing a few mortar rounds at the coalition I think its fairly clear from the evidence we saw that its easy to find a few yahoos to do it if the price is right. On the other hand I would be willing to bet that providing them with a steady peaceful job would be more attractive to them.

On the good news front I'm happy about the Iraqi reality TV show where terrorists give details of their exploits on camera. I think it confirms much of what we knew about the large numbers of criminals involved in the insurgency. Many, if not most, are in it for, shall we say, less than idealistic motives (e.g. You can make a good bit of money kidnapping people and stealing their stuff).

Sunday, March 06, 2005

My apologies, my postings for February were pretty weak. I'll get back into the swing of things now I'm back to my normal schedule at home. Last week I went back to work and caught up with what's been going on since I've left. At home, the kids are very busy little people and take a lot of my energy.

I have definitely felt a bit out of the loop lately in respects to the goings on in Iraq. In Iraq, I spent hours each day reading intelligence summaries and tactical updates. I've gone from feast to famine. I know better than to try to form much of an opinion based on what I see on TV. I'm trying to find some good sources on the ground instead. I have both soldiers and Iraqis that I can correspond with by email, but I haven't done much of that yet. The 3rd rotation military bloggers haven't had time to settle in. There are only a few I've found so far. Many of the larger units just got into position and are learning the ropes. When the initial learning phase is over, some will start blogging. I started about 3 weeks after we arrived in Iraq in March of 2004.

In the meantime, I found I can still read some of the publications I read while I was in Iraq. At LSA Ananconda the Corps Support Command puts out a weekly newspaper called the Anaconda Times, The Stars and Stripes newspaper puts out an insert in Iraq called the Scimitar and other commands also have there own publications. Many of these publications are published on the web and provide a much closer and comprehensive view of what's happening on the ground than the National Papers back at home. Its like reading your local paper, except the neighborhood is Iraq. Multinational Forces Iraq (MNF-I) has a good website that has photos and press releases as well as the MNF-I publications I mention above.

In addition I read blogs by Iraqis which give a different perspective on what's going on. Among my favorites are Iraq the Model, Healing Iraq and Friends of Democracy. I also go to Iraqi Blog Count which has a huge list of links to Iraqi blogs running the gambit from a teenage girl in Mosul to bitter baathists to Iraqi professionals.

Just a little tidbit I picked up from a DoD news briefing from 3March. Apparently the maneuver commanders are saying that the sophistication of the IEDs is decreasing. As a result they are seeing a trend towards larger bombs deployed in an attempt to make up for lack of precision. To me this suggests that the experts are being killed or captured or the environment is such that the insurgents are unable to use the same tactics. Most IEDs are command detonated, meaning that some guy is watching the target and is using either a remote control device like a garage door opener or they have a wire running to the bomb and they blow it manually. I heard a general commenting some days ago on the fact that the US casualty rate in February was the lowest since last July. In part they attribute this to an increase capability to jam remote control devices. Increased actionable intelligence and the participation of Iraqi security forces in counter-insurgency operations also has helped.

The civilian casualties in the last two weeks have been horrible. It seems every other day I hear about 20 or more civilians or Iraqi security forces being killed. The bombing at Hillah proved one more time a lesson the average Iraqi knows too well. The insurgents care nothing about Iraq's future, because they are not a part of it. Each outrage galvanizes the public against them. It was a plan full of folly from the beginning to think that a people who endured the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam's lunacy and years of deprivation would be intimidated into surrender when they can see the way forward now.

My opinion is that the tipping point has been reached. Despite the daily tragedies, they are far outnumbered by the daily triumphs and progress. The elections have appeared to have sent shock waves out that have emboldened people throughout the Arab world. Though full of pain, the rebuilding continues.

"They who sew in tears will reap with songs of joy.
He who goes out weeping carrying seed to sew,
will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him" - Psalm 126

Monday, February 21, 2005

Like last year, the Ashura was a target of opportunity for the bad guys to kill some more innocent people. It was also another opportunity for the Iraqi populace to see the insurgents true colors. Since the plan to derail the election obviously failed, the insurgents have returned to a previous idea, trying to foment a civil war. The problem with this plan is that it failed several times before and the truth of what they are doing is obvious to the majority of Shia.

Ashura is the commemoration of the the death of Hussein near Karbala at the hands of Yazid's Army. Ashura is characterized by mourning and we often see pictures of men marching through the streets with chains or swords.

I've talked to quite a few people since I got back home. The number one question is "what is it really like there?". I think behind this is a fundamental distrust of the picture being painted here in the US. On one side the "sky is falling" commentariat who seem a little less strident after the elections and on the other side the rosy optimists. I would put myself among the optimists and think that there are good reasons for doing so.

I think many people were struck by the turnout and character of the elections. After being treated to almost two years of the out of control chaos theory of Iraq, a fairly orderly and largely successful election created a good bit of cognitive dissonance. Maybe Iraq is not the deadend basket case it is portrayed as.

The newly elected body now needs to get down to business and write a constitution and the government needs to continue building capacity and control in all their functional areas, especially security and infrastructure. In December there will be another election. Between now and then the insurgency needs to either reinvent itself, a skill they seem to be lacking, or accelerate their downward spiral of declining operational ability and legitimacy.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Saturday was my last day of active duty. Most of us will take a few weeks of terminal leave before we return to what we do as civilians. For me that means returning to being a husband and Father and getting back to the Connecticut region of the American Red Cross Blood Services as a researcher in their Epidemiology and Surveillance program.

Even though I was technically allowed to say where I was and who I was as long as I didn't discuss operational details, felt it was better not to. Now that I'm back I'll let you know that I was the Battalion Intelligence Sergeant for the 118th Medical Battalion out of Newington, Connecticut. We were stationed at LSA Anaconda in the Sunni Triangle. I had the opportunity to travel around the country, maybe not as much as I would have liked to, but probably more than the average soldier. My day job in Iraq was to provide the Commander with situational awareness for our areas of operation, which was one of the largest for any Battalion sized element in Iraq (from the Turkish to the Kuwaiti border). I went to Intel and Force Protection meetings and spent most of the time reading and digesting the huge number of intel products that are put out every day by everyone from the CIA to company commanders of maneuver units. For the people who wondered why a medic should know about anything other than my tiny slice of Iraq, it was my job to see the big picture and keep my Commander in the know.

My flight home from Kuwait took us north over Iraq again. I recognized a few places, the result of a year of staring at maps. I saw a familiar bend in the Tigris river and in the early morning haze I could see a plume of smoke coming from the burn pit on Anaconda. Further north I saw snow covered mountains near the Turkish border, then larger ones in Turkey itself.

Flying over Wales I could see Mount Snowdon rising out of the cloud deck.

The first part of North America I saw was Newfoundland and a few hours later we landed at Fort Drum.

Our week at Fort Drum went slowly. I stayed in the BOQ so I had my own room. Of all the things we did, medical checks, turn in of equipment, paperwork, demob briefings. I'm pretty sure it could have been compressed a bit. One of our docs outprocessed in 36 hours when he came through in May.

The weather at Fort Drum was incredibly warm compared to when we left, it stayed in the 30's all week.

Being at home has been wonderful. All my kids have grown so much. My baby, Jennifer, just started walking a week or so before I got home. It was hard missing her first year but my wife did a great job of sending me pictures and keeping me updated on her progress.

I'll probably go into my kid's school this week and talk to them about Iraq. Next week is February vacation so we'll be busy.

As for this blog, I'll still be writing, though less frequently. I still have many friends and comrades in Iraq and I'll always feel like I have a stake in what goes on there.

Thanks for everyone's support during this last 15 months.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

I just had my dufflebags inspected by customs and loaded to go to the airport later today. All I have left is my backpack.

The time in the camp flew by. I entertained myself yesterday hunting giant gerbils.

I've been talking to some of the incoming guys. Lots of Hawaii National Guard guys. Some of the companies came from American Samoa and Guam.

Well I'm running low on Internet minutes. I'll write more from Fort Drum.

Thanks for everyone's support. It encouraged me a lot during my time here.

Looking forward to Home.

Signing off from Operation Iraqi Freedom II.


Sunday, January 30, 2005

Its election day in Iraq. We will watch from down here in Kuwait as Iraqis express the will of the people. Whatever happens today, the very fact that the elections are happening at all and according to plan is a victory in itself and a step forward.

I think of all my Iraqi friends at this time. Some Shia, some Sunni. Some will vote and others will not because of direct threats against them. Hopefully all will benefit in the long run.

I think of several guys in particular who worked with us. They have endured so much in the past year, kidnapped family members, one had his house mortared by insurgents and his children injured, death threats to themselves and their families, even verbal abuse and insults from US soldiers who think they are the enemy. I know these guys are heroes and the rebuilders of Iraq. Every day they defy the terrorist's ambitions by getting up, going to work and not giving in to despair. They are winning by sheer will power. They would not admit greatness themselves, they are all humble men. They will tell you "what else can I do". That's the difference, the only way they see is forward, to fight in their own way. Others wait and see in the safety of inaction. As it has always been, the people of action and vision, will make the way for the rest.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

My last day in Iraq was yesterday. The morning was filled with last minute things like going to the mail and cleaning our tent out. Being the last out means that you get stuck with a lot of crap to throw out.

Another medical unit from our state just got in and will be here for the next year. It was good to see some familiar faces wearing the same patch we do. We gave them as much stuff as they wanted, microwaves, carpets, refrigerators, electronics, cds. They happily carted them away in the back of an ambulance.

While we were packing up we heard a rocket whistle in close to us but with no boom. We looked at eachother and continued working thinking it was a generator or something. When the alarm sounded we knew it had been incoming.

The rocket landed ten feet infront of the gate guard to the hospital across the street from our shower, causing a extreme blood pressure jump for the guard. EOD was out there later digging it out. That would be our last incoming for our deployment we've had over 600. We lost 13 comrades on our base both US military and Iraqi National Guard.

The last of our Battalion, including me, left Iraq at 19:30 local time yesterday on a C-130. As we did some hard banks after takeoff I could see the lights of my home away from home for the last year fade into the distance.

I'm now in a camp in Kuwait for a little while. Soon we'll be back home.

Monday, January 24, 2005

After a break in the weather yesterday, we are back to rain and mud today.

Yesterday, I went on an unscheduled mission back to the International Zone in Baghdad. We flew down just as the sun was coming up. The fields are very green with new crops coming up. A few fields had stubble where corn had been harvested.

After landing at the helipad, we walked out to the main drag near the Embassy and up towards our Brigade HQ. The IZ is much different than when I was first there in October. More security and blast barriers, more visible guards and everyone needs to be in Body Armor and have a loaded weapon. A few days after my first visit, 2 suicide bombers hit the bazaar that used to be near the embassy and the Green Zone Cafe.

At the Embassy we got a nice tour by a Sergeant in the unit in charge of the place. We went to a room that soldiers call the Rocket room. On one end is a large painting of rockets flying off to kill Saddam's enemies, on the other is a painting of a mosque. I believe its the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The artwork on the walls and ceiling are incredible, hand carved and painted designs, metalwork, intricate chandeliers. I saw room after room of incredible craftsmanship and opulence.

One room I visited was called the Green room. Its the one that Saddam appeared with his cabinet seated at the head of a large table.

I've visited a few of Saddam and his son's palaces. It really boggles the mind that so much money could be poured into these projects, to the detriment of the population. The work is incredible, but it was paid for in blood.

The palace is called the Embassy Annex because the US Embassy is being built elsewhere, though it won't be completed for a while.

We flew out in the afternoon. Every time I fly out of Baghdad I go in a different direction. This time I flew east out over the Tigris right by the Ishtar Sheraton, past a large church in the Eastern part of the city and over an area with large numbers of low walled buildings. It was incredible the number of water buffalo crammed into pens in people's courtyards. In the distance I could see the split blue-green dome of the Martyr's Memorial and a large stadium.

The Ishtar Sheraton on the East bank of the Tigris River

View of Eastern part of Baghdad

Saturday, January 22, 2005

It has been raining all day and into tonight. Its miserable outside, which should keep the bad guys indoors at least until it stops raining. Our tent has been billowing in an out and sounds like its going to be ripped up and blow away. Everyone who could, stayed out of the cold and the rain today. A short walk to the chow hall soaked me to the skin.

The forecast for tomorrow is mud. Mud in the showers, mud in every building, mud in our tent no escaping. The temperature should be nice in the upper 50's.

We missed this particular type of weather last year. At this time last year we were doing our field exercise at Fort Drum, NY with an ambient temperature of minus 27 degrees F.

Most of the Battalion is already back in Kuwait. After the transfer of authority to the last incoming unit the rest of us here will join them. I don't envy them in Kuwait. Many units are just sitting in tents in overcrowded camps sometimes for a few weeks waiting to catch a plane home. That makes it bearable though...going home.

Sun Pillar - Fort Drum, New York January 2004
I now have less than a week left in Iraq. I'll be in Kuwait for the elections. The thought is that the insurgents will try to really ramp up the violence 2 to 4 days before the election for maximum intimidation effect. I'm optimistic that Iraqis will come out and vote. From watching various programs on TV I'd think that no one is going to vote. The guys at Iraq the Model think differently as do I.

In our neck of the woods, we've had a few rocket and mortar attacks in the last week. Only a couple hit close enough to me where I could even hear them. Activity is up a bit but really not that much. The insurgents seem to favor targeting people who don't shoot back.

Yesterday our EOD guys were going crazy. They were blowing up things all day making mushroom clouds several hundred feet tall. A couple times they forgot to tell us, so we wondered if we had a rocket attack. The worst case of not being notified was a couple months after we got here the Air Force dropped a 2000 pound bomb just outside our gate. That shook a few people up.

For my Iraqi friends and all Iraqis I pray for a successful election, the first of many.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

It rained all last night, alternating between pouring and sprinkling. The wind kicked up and helicopters flew into the hospital making for a very noisy night in the tent.

I spent most of the day in my tent reading "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand. It wasn't until later in the day that I realized how ironic it was. The characters in the book are all men and women of action, who must remain in motion, while I wasted my day doing mostly nothing, including a long nap in the afternoon. I was the Randian anti-hero, notable in my ability to get nothing done and having no goal. Well, I'm not to concerned if its only for a day.

Since dinner I actually have been doing a few things like checking up on the current situation.

In Mosul the security situation has improved, despite the kidnapping and eventual release of the Catholic Archbishop. The insurgents are trying to maintain the perception of total lawlessness by focusing their efforts on high profile, soft targets that don't risk confrontation with American or Iraqi security forces. The murder rate in Mosul has actually dropped significantly in the last week, but the insurgents are very savvy at using the media as a strategic weapon.

In a few days the location of polling stations will be published. This will probably kick off the insurgents final hurrah, which will last until the 30th. Several security measures such as limiting vehicular traffic and closing the borders have been widely published.

My guess and my hope is that Iraqis will come out in large numbers defying the small group of terrorists and criminals trying to keep back the tide of history. In a few days we will see.

Monday, January 17, 2005

I''m sitting in my tent, rain is pattering on the roof and there is a roll of thunder every few minutes (we ran internet lines out to the tent). A helicopter is passing overhead, about to land at the hospital. I have less than 2 weeks left in Iraq and probably around 3 left in Theater.

Last night our headquarters det left for Kuwait. We marched over with them to the holding area where they waited for the C-130 out. Most of our gear was hauled down to Kuwait by flatbed, so with the exception of a handful of people we didn't have to convoy back. Most of our Battalion is now waiting for us in Kuwait. Hopefully we'll leave, as we came a year ago, the entire battalion on one big jet.

Its a bit lonely, with only a few of us left in headquarters.

I woke up early this morning to the sound of three mortar rounds leaving the tube. I didn't wait to find out whose they were before I jumped into my boots and went inside the building. Last week I heard a mortar launch a few hundred meters outside the wire, it hit a hangar but didn't damage anything. It turned out this mornings launches were our guys doing mortar registration.

Later in the morning I went down to the clinic. The replacements just arrived last night. I met a couple of the new PAs and had lunch with them. There have been a few delays with the incoming unit and some people felt like they'd never get there. Now they can look forward to leaving soon.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Today was our last official day of our Iraq mission, we did a transfer of authority ceremony this afternoon, after an excruciating 5 run throughs of the ceremony.

As we walked out of our tent to walk to the ceremony practice, the sky was just lighting up in the east. A single contrail from a plane stretched from one end of the horizon to the other forming a giant arch taking up the sky and illuminated by the rising sun. I said it was like a gate we had to go through on our last day, oops wrong direction...that way is Iran.

Most of the company will be leaving in the next few days. I'll stay around with a few of the leaders to torment the incoming unit a little more and waiting for the last unit to replace our guys at the clinic.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

We haven't had any mortar or rocket attacks here for a week, which is a long time in these parts. Its only happened three times since getting here last February. Word is that the insurgents are planning something they call a "day of fire". Probably the usual business of trying to cause as much damage as they can. A lot of car bombs are supposed to be roaming around the country. Our recent car bomb apparently was perpetrated by two Saudis.

Eighteen days before the elections. Several groups have stated that their snipers would gun down voters at the polls. Think about that, the act of voting is seen as dangerous or offensive enough to warrant a deadly response. With 6000 polling sites throughout the country, its impossible to or provide a high level of security for them all. On election day we'll see the heights of bravery as people come out to vote with knowledge of both its dangers and importance and the depths of cowardice as some voters are attacked and unfortunately injured or killed. Its up to all Iraqis to ensure their sacrifice was not in vain.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

I had a fairly relaxing day. A couple meetings in the morning, then tying up a few loose ends in the afternoon. I met my contractor friend who just came back from a business trip to Germany. He said he'll be laying low until the elections are over. Its the last time I'll see him before I leave. I've been lucky to have as much contact with Iraqis as I've had, though I would have liked more. I'll keep in contact through email.

The lull across the theater continues, for how long we don't know. The insurgents are probably moving and refitting in anticipation of attacks near the election. We have seen these spikes a half dozen times throughout the last year. My expectation is a relatively brief period of violence followed by another lull. The insurgents are running up against a few problems. One is leadership, the other is logistics. After the last Fallujah operation attacks dropped dramatically and changed to less confrontational, lower risk attacks. There was a need to preserve the fighting strength that was left. Quite a few insurgent leaders and enablers (like the moneymen) have been rolled up recently. I think the leadership crisis is real and significantly impacting their ability to sustain attacks.

As others have said before, the insurgency in Iraq comes nowhere near the gold standard Vietnamese insurgency, with large scale popular participation. The insurgents are viewed generally as dangerous criminals, sometimes as nutty zealots. They are savvy and have a very good handle on how to play the media. As a result I expect a number of large scale "made for TV" attacks in the coming weeks, followed by a crowd of talking heads discussing how everything has come undone. After the elections we will see more attacks, however, successful elections will further erode the credibility of insurgents of every stripe.

Another element of the insurgency is the subcontractor. A significant number of people we catch are paid to plant a bomb or fire a rocket. They do it not necessarily for ideological reasons but instead to make a desperately needed buck or sometimes because of threats on their own lives or their family. If the security situation was better, they would likely be happier working on a reconstruction project.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Well I have officially been evicted from my office and bedroom. I'm living in a tent with all the officers and senior NCOs. Its like a big frat house. We still are doing our jobs (most of us) for a little while longer. The incoming unit is about to take over. Tonight we are having a big cookout with steak, lobstertails and a huge amount of food.

There have been a few bumps with our replacements and it hasn't exactly been the smooth, friendly transition that we experienced with the unit we replaced in February. It could be an Active Army/National Guard thing. Since we've had no problems with other Active units the real reason is probably because there are a few asses involved who's attitudes lead the way. Anyway I'm sure they'll do a fine job when they take over and I wish them luck. It will be an important year for Iraq and they are a big part of it.

The insurgents will undoubtedly try to cause trouble just before the election in the form of mass casualty attacks against soft targets. I think that the Iraqis like the Afghans will pull it off. It will be messy, but an important step forward.

Monday, January 03, 2005

I woke up this morning to the sound of an explosion. It was the sound of 5 men dying. A car bomb blew up just outside our base about 500 meters from my building. As is often the case these days, it was the Iraqi National Guard who took the brunt of it. These men were doing their job, as they do every day, keeping us and their comrades safe. Doing what they could to bring peace to Iraq, they gave their life for their country. They will remain in my mind and heart among the honored dead. They should be regarded as such everywhere.

I'm getting sick of people who characterize all the Iraqi security forces as corrupt, bumbling fools. Most are honest and increasingly capable. Men of action, not words. There is so much moral distance between the armchair pundit who secretly revels in each attack and outrage because it validates their loathing of what we are doing here and the Iraqi soldier, policeman, border guard, or election worker who gets up each day and does his job knowing, yet suppressing for the sake of sanity, that today they might be killed and reviled as enemies of the people and apostates.

January, by all accounts, will be as bloody as the insurgents can muster. They will rage but the Iraqi voters have within their power the ability to deal a devastating blow against them with the stroke of a pen mixed with the bravery of showing up.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Sunrise on the airstrip waiting for the Sherpa to be loaded. These planes are great for carting equipment and people all over the country sometimes flying 20ft off the ground. My favorite ride next to a blackhawk helicopter.

Homemade Italian Pizza for Lunch, cheese, ham and artichoke. The base I visited was in the Italian Division area, there is a pizzeria on post that make homemade pizza and calzones. Italian music videos were on the satellite TV and a poster on the wall proclaiming the accomplishments of Operazione Babilonia, the Italian's piece of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The great Ziggurat of Ur. Temple to the moon god.

Looking down on the tombs area.

Another view of the Ziggurat.

Looking up from the underground entrance to a royal tomb.

Mounds of debris from excavations containing a huge amount of pottery shards.

The rebuilt "House of Abraham" built on the foundations of a rich mans house from the approximate time of the Prophet Abraham.

I just got back from a trip to a base near Nasiriyah in the southern part of the country. The flight down in the sherpa was enjoyable. I could see the snow-capped Zagros mountains in Iran as we flew south along the Iranian border.

The green Tigris valley faded to the sandy, absolutely flat desert of the south, criss-crossed by irrigation canals large and small. Near Nasiriyah I saw large areas of the former southern marshes that have been reflooded. I also saw large areas white with salt, the irrigation water carries salts with it that slowly build up and poison the soil.

My mission took me to a base that is right next to the ruins of ancient Ur. One of the ancient Sumerian cities, it is the traditional home of the prophet Abraham. In the 1920's and 30's the treasures of the city made it the most famous archeological site in the world, the excavations closely followed by the world press. Because of its biblical associations many Europeans traveled to this remote location to view it for themselves. Agatha Christie visited the site, later married one of the excavators and wrote a novel set in the excavation site.

I was lucky enough to tag along with a group of logistics guys who had arranged to tour the ruins with a local guide. The site is far from completely excavated, many years worth of work remain.

The site itself is dominated by the great Ziggurat, the temple to the moon god. One of the expeditions rebuilt some of the Ziggurat. We climbed the stairs to the top and had a great view of the surrounding desert and ruins. Natural asphalt was used to cement the bricks together. The guide told me that even today there are asphalt springs near the Iraqi city of Hit, these springs have been known from ancient times. Heterodotus referred to them as the fountains of Is.

We walked through a smaller temple and then the ruins of the royal palace.

One of the most striking parts of the ruins are the royal tombs. Both commoners and royalty are buried in a large brickwork area. Many of the commoners were buried simply wrapped in a reed mat and placed in a small nook along with a few personal items, some had their bones put in ossuary jars. The most spectacular part was the tombs of the Sumerian royalty. The tombs were large vaulted rooms where the excavators found many human and animal remains along with that of the king or queen. In these tombs they also found the gold, silver and priceless artifacts that captured the public's imagination only eclipsed at the time by the discovery of the tomb of King Tut in Egypt.

As walked past the tombs large piles of rubble from the excavation of the tombs lined the pit. The rubble contained a gigantic quantity of pottery shards mixed in with the dirt.

On the far end of the excavations was a house rebuilt on the ruins. It was the house of a rich man with 30 or so rooms, 4 courtyards, 3 stairs cases and a very modern drainage system made of interlocking ceramic pipes. This has been called the house of Abraham, because it is from approximately the same time period and his father was thought to be a very wealthy man.

The final part of the site we visited was called the Flood Pit. This deep excavation uncovered evidence of 2 large floods in the region, one 2900 years ago and one about 4000 years ago. The excavators at the time attributed the second flood to Noah's flood.

When things are safer, there are many sites like Ur that could support a tourist industry. There is a five year plan to continue excavation at Ur and also to build a hotel and some tourist facilities to support visitors.

The base I stayed at has had 1 rocket attack in the last year. The south part of the country is relatively safe, save an occasional roadside bomb.

Pictures tomorrow - server problems this evening

Happy New Year